It’s week whatever of quarantine, and I’ve started to pry myself from my desk and take arbitrary lunch breaks during my news shifts.
Because of the pressure to be productive, I’m riding my cheapo exercise bike in the living room, finally making good on a new year’s resolution that’s followed me for half a decade now.
My calves are burning, but it’s Yagami that’s doing most of the legwork. As he sprints through Kamurocho, my eyes hover on the tassels of his immaculate leather jacket, which flop to and fro in the breeze. Passing Asahi vending machines and old friends, I pause under the red sign that defines this virtual rendition of Kabukicho. Across the road, there’s something familiar, but painfully out of reach.
I open the camera app on Yagami’s smartphone, and after a few fumbling tries to get the orientation right, I focus on a string of letters strewn across an orange banner.
“What are you doing?” my mam asks, as she takes a seat on the sofa behind me.
“I had a beef bowl there,” I say as I slip my feet out of the pedals. “Before all this!”
What I’m looking at is Judgment’s version of Yoshinoya in Shinjuku City, specifically the spot near the eastern exit of the station. It’s a fast-food chain that specialises in Gyūdon, a Japanese dish that consists of a bowl of rice covered in thin, chewy strips of flavoursome beef and onion. It’s cheap and very cheerful.
I showed a picture of the dish to my mam, knowing she would recoil at the sight of it. The humble beef bowl looks like heaven to me, but to my mam, who is a big stickler for food texture, it is anathema.
I returned to my bike and took a few pictures of the distant restaurant. It was melancholic to look at this place from Yagami’s perspective – the pain-staking accuracy of Ryu Ga Gotoku’s virtual world driving home the present impossibility of my return to this fabled house of meaty wonder.
I couldn’t just cross the road to get to my beloved beef bowl – in the same way, that I can’t just get on a train and go see my dad or my girlfriend, who are both cooped up in other parts of my fragmented country, which is puttering its way through lockdown after a disastrous governmental mishandling of the pandemic.
The worst part of all this for me has been the lack of intimacy – and I mean that in the very broad definition of the word. Close familiarity with the people you care about – holding hands with someone you love, nursing a pint with a good friend as you talk into the night. Those are the meaningful moments of social clarity that have been stripped away from our lives.
Even the forgettable, potentially smile-raising exchange of pleasantries at the supermarket checkout feels more like a trip to the embassy under current conditions.
It fucking sucks.
But of all the virtual spaces I’ve toured since this nightmare began, Judgment gives me hope for a brighter tomorrow.
The game is set in 2018 (are there any other games set so close to the present?) and it oozes cool. It provides this captivating HBO-esque detective story but delights in doling out spats of absurdity – and it all plays out inside a meticulous recreation of Shinjuku’s most infamous district, Kabukicho.
It’s a walking, talking juxtaposition and a ludicrous labour of love. As a consequence, it feels incredibly human, and that’s why it has quickly become the game I’ve held onto most during quarantine. Every lunchtime without fail I’ll press on with Yagami’s story, but I’m taking it slow… Breath of the Wild slow.
I’ve played Judgment for 28 hours and 30 minutes as of writing, and I’m on Chapter 3 of 12. That’s almost exactly the average time for regular players to complete the story on How Long To Beat, but I’m no regular detective, see. In fact, I’m not really interested in the underworld intrigue so much as I am the world that thrives above it. This hyperreal simulacrum of Shinjuku has become my social reality, and it’s giving me a lot more solace than the grimdark landscape beyond my front door.
I recently unlocked the Bottomless Stomach ability, which means I can eat even when my health gauge is full. I’ve been working up to this one so I can go on a voyeuristic tour of Judgment’s remarkable range of restaurants, logging my eats in Yagami’s diary app on his phone.
So far, I’ve had every cuisine under the sun, from filthy avocado burgers at Wild Jackson to honey-pepper marinated Dwaeji Galbi at the upmarket cookery Gyu-Kaku.
This salivating odyssey has helped me pin down the food spots I need to visit in the real world once restaurants are safe to visit. It’s a delight for the senses to explore these establishments, but what’s even better is that you can get to know the people who work there and help solve their problems – they might even let you in on the secret menu as a result!
So far I’ve made 25 friends in Kamurocho, become the king of the local darts scene, and I’m not so bad at pulling the plush you need out of the claw machines at Club SEGA. Despite my lack of story progression, I’m an asset to this simulated society in a way that I can’t achieve in real life.
My notoriety has now progressed to the point where I’ll be aided in battle by acquaintances – last week someone chucked a bottle of hot sauce at me on their lunch break so I could pour it in a Yakuza’s eyes. I’m also being followed around by a Ninja expat called Ryan… he tries his best.
A staple for the Yakuza series, Judgment’s side stories are typically silly but what I’ve been pleasantly surprised by is the beating heart behind many of them. A few of my favourites involved testing out the *ahem* experimental cooking of my landlord and choosing the right text prompts to respond to her in a constructive, encouraging manner. Another saw Yagami help a cute couple haunt their own apartment to play tricks on the landlord. Sometimes I’ll just sit and chat to bartenders and coffee sommeliers about the things that interest them. All of these situations are ordinary, but in a new world that has robbed me of such intimacy, I’m so thankful that they exist.
The game is making me dwell on fond memories spent in izakayas, pubs and parks – it’s helping me remember what the world was like before all of this, but it’s also giving me hope for life in “the new normal,” (whatever that means) when I’ll be able to see my old friends and loved ones without all of this fear and nausea.
I’m the ultimate introvert, but Judgment has reminded me that in-person social time is something I still crave, a plate I need to spin with a bit more effort to keep my mental health in check. We’re not nearly through all of the trials and tribulations of this pandemic just yet, but I’ve found that in Judgment, there’s a brighter tomorrow I can look forward to.